Périgord walnuts - worth their weight in gold
When you think of the Périgord (or the Dordogne as it is often referred to) walnuts probably aren’t the first thing that spring to mind. You may think of a gastronomic treat or two; perhaps truffles, foie gras or an incredible bottle of wine from a grand chateau but walnuts, surely not.
Here in the Périgord, thousands of hectares of land are given over to walnut trees. Walnuts have, and continue to be vital, not only to the health of the economy but also to the health of the residents. There is even a museum a few kilometres away from Les Milandes which is dedicated to the walnut. The mill here (at the Vielcroze Estate) has produced virgin walnut oil since the 18th century. Oil is produced from their 7 hectares of trees and locals still bring their walnuts to the mill to be crushed.
However, links between the Périgord and the walnut date back much further than a couple of hundred years. Indeed, there is archeological evidence that walnuts have formed part of the local diet for more than 17,000 years. That’s back to the days of Cro-Magnon inhabitants!
Nothing is lost in the walnut but the sound of the shell being cracked
This local saying is absolutely true. The nut itself is incredibly versatile. It is used in bread, cheese, jam, ice cream, tarts and salads. Green walnuts are often pickled.
The oil from the nut has, historically, been used in paint, soap and as a form of lighting. In the early Middle Ages debts were often paid off with Périgord walnuts. (At this time, walnut oil was considered to be worth its weight in gold.) Nowadays the oil, after distilling, often ends up as an aperitif, digestif or liqueur.
However, it isn’t just the nut which is used. Walnut leaves are often used to wrap produce (such as fresh cheeses at market) while the shells can be ground and used as cat litter! You sometimes see sacks of these for sale at the local markets.
The health properties of Périgord walnuts
Much of the cuisine of the Périgord can be considered fairly rich, (and incredibly tasty) so why do the locals have one of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world? Yes, you guessed it; Périgord walnuts may well hold the answer. High in healthy minerals such as copper, potassium and zinc, the walnut is said to contain properties that help lower cholesterol. Walnuts are high in protein, rich in fibre, can help boost energy and combat stress. A modern day ‘superfood’! (Perhaps Nestlé should reconsider their decision to remove the piece of walnut from their new Walnut Whips…)
In recognition of the importance of the walnut to the region, four varieties; Corne, Franquette, Grandjean and Marbot have been granted an Appellation d’origine contrôlée. This is a guarantee that the walnut is locally grown and of the best quality.
Visitors to the area can now follow special routes along the Dordogne Valley which take in various walnut producers and mills. Details of the Route de la Noix can be picked up in local tourist offices. They also include information on specialist patisseries and restaurants which serve walnut inspired dishes. So, you can walk off a few calories before re-fuelling on incredible Périgord walnuts. Bon appétit.